It’s always angry white guys we’re told to lionize as heroes for when they take the law into their own hands. They – and only they – are allowed to process tragedy through revenge, vigilantism and other violent means. If a white woman or person of color takes this path, there’s suddenly an overwhelming amount of hand-wringing and talk about how it’s more useful to work within the system and be polite toward those in power (usually older white men).
If you look at Wikipedia’s page of vigilante films you’re hard-pressed to find more than a couple that feature anyone other than a white protagonist. These characters are held up as doing what’s necessary to avenge their loved ones and work outside a system that’s failed them. That message, though, isn’t received well by even our current society when, say, it’s a black father looking for answers as to why his child was killed and the police department seems uninterested in finding answers.
Unquestioningly falling into that tradition is this week’s Death Wish, an update of the 1972 film of the same name with Charles Bronson. This time around Bruce Willis takes the lead as a man whose family is murdered during an armed robbery and, frustrated by the inability of the police to find the perpetrators, sets out to dole out justice on his own through whatever means are needed.
Before we get even further, the question has to be asked: Is this message anywhere near as relevant today as it was 46 years ago?
As I write this, the students who survived yet another mass shooter in Parkland, FL are leading a quiet revolution. Well…not quiet, but certainly not armed. They are using their natural skills with social media to dunk on conservative talking heads and reluctant lawmakers who have dragged their feet on gun control laws. They’re encouraging companies who have done business with the National Rifle Association to rethink those relationships. They are, in a tragic turn of events, the ones inspiring more adults to speak up and apply pressure while all too many people can do is blithely fantasize about how *they* certainly would have rushed in to face danger on their own, even as others wouldn’t. That mindset has been instilled in many by the kinds of movies that glorify the lone action hero, standing up to protect the innocent. Those are just movies, though.
So as we have what seems to be a national debate as to whether our schools need to be filled with armed teachers (no), guarded by a squad of highly-trained marksmen (no), and turned into permanently locked-down prison camps (no), MGM wants us to go see a movie with the core message of “violence is always the answer.”
“They came for his family. Now he’s coming for them.” reads the copy on the first poster. It’s otherwise very simple, just a white background with a hooded figure carrying a chain serving as the “I” in the title treatment.
Willis is shown more clearly on the second poster, released shortly after the movie’s release date was changed, a gun pointing to someone unseen off-camera. His motivations for doing so are clear thanks to the copy at the top that reads “They came for his family. Now he’s coming for them.”
The theatrical one-sheet uses a different copy point, asking the audience “How far would you go to protect your family?” Along with that we see a silhouette of Willis walking toward the camera with a chain in his hand that he obviously intends to beat someone with.
Two exclusive posters – one for AMC Theaters and one for Regal Cinemas – offered a bit of a retro 70s vibe with its bright monochromatic color scheme and photo of Willis in the middle of exacting vengeance on someone by beating them with a massive wrench. This is obviously meant to invoke the kind of grindhouse action director Eli Roth and his contemporaries have fetishized for years but which I thought we were collectively over at this point.
The first trailer starts with radio hosts (including the popular but loathed Mancow) talking about the violence plaguing Chicago, including some vigilante who’s become an online sensation. When Kersey’s family is attacked and his wife murdered he sets out on a mission of revenge, finding those responsible and taking them out one by one.
It leans pretty heavily on the involvement of Roth as the director and Willis’ trademark dry delivery and expressionless face. It’s not bad, but it’s also not all that intriguing, just another old white guy out to kill the people who hurt him and his family. There’s nothing here to show any of Roth’s trademark style and so comes off as pretty bland.
The emotional family story is more prominent in how the film is positioned in the second trailer. We get shots of Kersey enjoying his family, who are then attacked and his wife killed. He’s frustrated by the inability of the police to find who’s responsible and so decides to take matters into his own hands, resorting to extreme measures to do so. Eventually his mission extends beyond his own situation and he sets out to right other people’s wrongs as well.
I’m struggling to come up with a more tone-deaf example of not reading the cultural room. But honestly, it’s yet another example of the “angry white male vigilante” genre coming back into fashion for various reasons, none of them good.
Online and Social
The movie’s official website gets the now-standard low-rent treatment, offering just a “Synopsis” and “Videos” section while focusing primarily on selling tickets and getting you to share a link to the site on your own social profiles. There are links to the movie’s own Instagram, Twitter and Facebook pages, but that’s it.
Advertising and Cross-Promotions
A few TV spots like this were run that distilled the pitch down to its core, explaining why Paul (Willis) has to take the justice system into his own hands. Those short videos as well as the trailers were used at times as paid posts on Twitter and Facebook as well.
Media and Publicity
Other than the press generated by the release of marketing materials there doesn’t seem to have been much of an effort on the publicity front. I don’t know if this is MGM just not being able to put something together or if a push was scuttled in the wake of the Parkland tragedy, but it’s surprising to not have Bruce Willis out there on the circuit.
It’s hard to think of a worse time for this kind of movie to come out. We’re nowhere near a point where this kind of message – that violence must be answered with violence and it’s all worth kind of laughing about – is an acceptable one.
More than that, though, it’s hard to think of why this was acceptable in the first place or if it will be again. Willis was, for my generation, one of the guys who personified the kind of lone warrior hero on-screen, something that was more or less fine in the 80s because we didn’t need to internalize it on a personal level. When the main threat is the Godless Communists over in Russia (OK, that part hasn’t changed) and not the idea of someone marching into your school with an assault rifle, those movies carry different weight.
Now, though, the calculus has changed. What this campaign is selling is now obviously well past its expiration date, no matter how many people make the “good guy with a gun” argument. The vigilantes aren’t perfect. They don’t always hit their target and when they do, it’s not always the right target. Guns, despite what’s on display here, are almost never the answer.
Chris Thilk is a freelance writer and content strategist who lives in the Chicago suburbs.
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